8 Catastrophic Examples of Word Choice Mistakes

Choosing the Right WordsNobody likes to feel confused—when we don’t understand something, we tend to reject it. Even worse is when we get the incorrect impression about something and don’t find out we were wrong until later. Clarity is key when it comes to business writing, and word choice plays a crucial role in how easy it is for the audience to understand your message.

What is word choice? The concept is easy to define; it’s simply the usage of the best words for getting your point across. Words are powerful tools and when used correctly, they’re all you need to compel your audience to action. However, words can also be dangerous weapons—ticking time bombs in your writing that can backfire on you by leading the audience astray, leaving them perplexed or turning them off completely. It’s important to learn how to spot problematic words and replace them with clear, powerful ones so that your copywriting can be as effective as possible. Here are some of the most common mistakes people make when it comes to their choice of words in business communication.

  1. Misused words

    Every now and then, you might find yourself using a word that is completely wrong—either because you thought it meant something different or because it sounds similar to the word the you actually wanted to use. In some cases, you might even use a word that doesn’t exist, such as “irregardless.”

    Improper word choice can sometimes be the result of spelling or grammar errors. A car dealership might write an ad where they say they can “ensure” a great deal on a used vehicle, but if they wrote “insure,” the audience would think they were talking about auto insurance. “Ensure” means guarantee, while “insure” means to protect. See how one little letter can make a big difference?

    Example of Misused Word Choice (Ensure vs. Insure)

    A simple spelling error has changed the meaning of this sentence to something completely different from its intent.

    It always helps to have an extra set of eyes take a look at your final draft to verify proper word usage. When in doubt, consult a dictionary to ensure you’re using the right definition. You can also review a list of commonly misused words to determine if you’re already making mistakes you’re not aware of.

  2. Ambiguous words

    Some words are just too wishy-washy and non-specific to effectively deliver your message. Vague words are weak and can lead to situations where the audience isn’t sure of your intent. For example, “Our product does plenty of stuff” is a weak sentence because the audience wants to know exactly what the product can do.

    Whenever possible, use descriptive word choice that give the audience a clear idea about the ideas you want to convey. Using an ambiguous word leaves too much room for interpretation, which can lead to the audience drawing the wrong conclusions. A poor sentence like “Our product is good” could mean any number of things—it could mean the product is effective, it could mean the product is a good value, it could even mean the product is delicious.

    Ambiguous Word Choice

    These are just a few examples of the conclusions your audience might jump to after hearing a vague word like “good.”

    Leaving it up to the audience to decide is a risky game to play. For some people, the word “good” is enough to make a positive connection, while other audiences might think that “good” is step below “great” or “excellent.” It’s generally much better to choose words with vivid, clearly defined value, such as “inexpensive,” “gorgeous,” or “durable.”

  3. Words with negative connotations

    The last thing you want from your marketing collateral is to accidentally offend your audience. Be sure that the word choice you use doesn’t have double meanings or negative connotations that might confuse readers.

    For instance, the word “youth” has positive overtones relating to both childhood and vitality. Meanwhile, “juvenile” may technically mean the same thing, but it can also have negative connotations relating to immaturity. If you were advertising a health and beauty product, you would talk about how it leaves you with a “youthful appearance,” not a “juvenile appearance;” the latter would simply imply that you look childish.

    Example of Negative Word Choice

    Even though “youthful” and “juvenile” technically have the same meaning, “juvenile” has negative connotations that wouldn’t be appropriate for this type of ad.

  4. Pronoun confusion

    Pronouns make communication quicker and easier, but when there are multiple subjects being discussed, pronouns can easily be misunderstood. For example, “Dr. Macklin often brings his dog Champion to visit with the patients. He just loves to give big, wet, sloppy kisses!” The dog is the one giving the kisses, but the uses of the “he” pronoun makes it sound like it could be the doctor giving the kisses instead!

    Example of Confusing Pronoun Usage

    With the usage of just one innocent but ambiguous pronoun, your audience might perceive this writing in a totally inappropriate way.

    You can simply fix the problem by clarifying the subject; in this case, “Champion just loves to give big, wet, sloppy kisses!” However, since you want your business writing to make an impression, consider a choice of more descriptive words than pronouns or proper names. “Our friendly, furry pup just loves to give big, wet, sloppy kisses!”

  5. Colloquialisms

    Using slang and regional terms might give your copywriting a bit of extra flavor, but choosing the right words helps ensure that your audience will understand what you’re saying. The words you use should match the vocabulary of your target audience; keep in mind that the wider your audience, the less colloquialisms you can effectively use.

    Bottles of Faygo Redpop with Colloquial Word Choice

    Faygo’s usage of the word “pop” makes sense because they target a very regional audience. Photo Credit: Chuck Olsen

    Consider advertisements for national soft drink companies like Coke and Pepsi. You never hear them called “pop” or “soda” or any other regional term. For the most part, these companies are so big that they can use the brand name itself as the de facto descriptor for their product. If need be, they will use broad terms such as “drink” or “beverage” that will be clear for any audience, despite region or age.

    On the other hand, the soft drink company Faygo uses the term “pop” to describe their product. Although pop is a regional term. it coincides with the region where Faygo is distributed. If the brand were to go national, it would likely need to change the name of some of its products in order to reach a wider audience.

  6. Jargon

    Like colloquialisms, jargon words will only be understood by select audiences. In some cases, that may be your target audience, but even so, you want to make your copywriting as accessible as possible to attract new customers—even the ones who might not fully understand the finer details.

    Jargon is often unavoidable in business writing because you need to give your audience all of the information necessary to make an informed decision. However, there is a time and place for it; you don’t want to use jargon in your brand’s message or slogan, but you would include it in a list of specs and features. And when you do use jargon, you want to follow it with an explanation in layman’s terms, whenever possible.

    Consider the copywriting found in a restaurant menu that explains how a dish is cooked, how it’s served and what it contains. Without a clear, jargon-free choice of words, it would be difficult for new customers to know what they’re ordering, especially if they’re unfamiliar with the type of food that’s being served.

  7. Misleading words

    Advertising and business writers sometimes have a tendency to exaggerate. We all want our product or service to sound appealing, and that desire sometimes makes us go a bit overboard and use words like “ultimate” or even call a product “inexpensive” when it’s actually quite pricey.

    Hyperbolic words such as “ultimate” or “flawless” can often act as a red flag to your audience, lowering your credibility and giving the impression that your offer is too good to be true. if your customers discover that the language in your marketing is misleading, it can backfire in a big way. Focus on using words that accurately represent your business’s strengths; if your product is popular, efficient or long-lasting (or if it actually is inexpensive), go ahead and use words that express those traits. Just don’t try to embellish the truth if you don’t have the credentials to back up your claims.

  8. Words that go against your brand identity or target audience

    Most importantly of all, your persuasive writing has to be in tune with your brand identity and target audience; word choice that goes against these can easily lead to brand confusion. For example, a high-end jewelry store targeting upscale consumers would use formal language, while an accessories boutique for young girls would use slang. Calling a diamond bracelet “cute” would be just as confusing to the audiences as referring to a plastic bracelet as “elegant.”

    Mismatched Brand Word Choice (Cute vs. Elegant)

    Even if an adjective is specific and has positive connotations, it may not be right for your particular brand.

    This also means you have to keep a consistent style across all platforms. The word choices you make for your print media should also match your online media, your social media posts and even company e-mails. You have to figure out the “voice” of your brand in order to know what word usage works best with your identity and audience.

Conclusion

The hardest part of choosing the right word is trying to get it right the first time. Nobody is perfect and the best strategy is always to write first, then edit later. Trying to figure out the best word choice while in the middle of the writing process may stifle your voice or make it difficult to get your message across. Focus first on what you want to say, then go back to make sure you’re saying it clearly.

Know of any other common word choice mistakes? Any cringeworthy examples of poor word usage in advertising? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments!

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8 Catastrophic Examples of Word Choice Mistakes

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